Harriet Prescott Spofford

Harriet Prescott Spofford (Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford. April 3, 1835 – August 14, 1921) was an American writer.

Born in Calais, Maine, to a seafaring family, Spofford moved with her mother and siblings to Newburyport, Massachusetts, after her father abandoned the family to head west in search of fortune. When she was fourteen, Spofford was sent to live with her aunt Elizabeth Betton, and received her formal education at the Putnam Free School in Newburyport, and at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire.

At seventeen, Spofford won a school contest with an essay on Hamlet’s insanity, which attracted the attention of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Emily Dickinson’s correspondent and friend), who then became Spofford’s literary mentor. She started publishing short stories anonymously in local newspapers and magazines in Boston, to earn money to help support her family.

Her leap into fame happened in the spring of 1859, when she published the short story “In a Cellar” in the Atlantic Monthly, which drew the attention of the literary circles in Boston. In the following year, Spofford anonymously published her first novel, Sir Rohan’s Ghost (1860). In 1863, she published her first short-story collection, The Amber Gods and Other Stories (1863).

In 1865, she married Richard Smith Spofford, a minor poet who worked as a lawyer. The couple had a son, Richard Spofford, in January 1867, but he sadly died that same year in September. Her husband would die twenty years later, in 1888.

In her day, Spofford was one of the most popular women writers in the United States, and was well-known by fellow writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. She also took part in a circle of women writers in Boston, where she regularly met Annie Adams Fields, Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge), Sarah Orne Jewett, Rose Terry Cooke, Louise Chandler Moulton, and Celia Thaxter, among others. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a huge supporter of her work, and recommended some of her stories to Emily Dickinson, who replied: “I read ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me in the Dark – so I avoid her.” Dickinson also wrote later: “It is the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn’t think I could have imagined myself.”

Spofford’s stories and poems were published by the leading periodicals of the United States, such as Scribner’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, and Lippincott’s. Her career spanned more than six decades, and she published in a wide variety of genres, such as novels, short stories, essays, poems, travelogues, memoir, biography, children’s literature, household decoration, and literary criticism.

Her reputation started to dwindle at the turn of the century, and she is hardly known to readers today. She died of arteriosclerosis in 1921, at eighty-seven years old.


  • Sir Rohan’s Ghost (1860)
  • The Amber Gods (1863)
  • Azarian: An Episode (1864)
  • New England Legends (1871)
  • The Thief in the Night (1872)
  • Art Decoration Applied to Furniture (1878)
  • The Servant Girl Question (1881)
  • Poems (1882)
  • Marquis of Carabas (1882)
  • Hester Stanley at Saint Marks (1883)
  • Ballads about Authors (1887)
  • A Scarlet Poppy, and Other Stories (1894)
  • In Titian’s Gardens (1897, poetry)
  • Stepping Stones To Happiness (1897)
  • Old Madame, and Other Tragedies (1900)
  • The Children of the Valley (1901)
  • The Great Procession (1902)
  • That Betty (1903)
  • The Ray of Displacement and Other Stories (1903)
  • Old Washington (1906)
  • The Fairy Changeling (1910, children’s book)
  • The Making of a Fortune (1911)
  • A Little Book of Friends (1916, essays)
  • The Elder’s People (1920).


About her

  • Our Famous Women, by Rose Terry Cooke (1884)
  • Harriet Prescott Spofford, A Romantic Survival, by Elizabeth K. Halbeisen (1935)
  • Notable American Women, 1607–1950, ed. Edward T. James (1971)
  • American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Lina Mainiero (1980)
  • The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, ed. Claire Buck (1992)
  • The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (1995)
  • Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson (1997)

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